Ash Wednesday: Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust

Today the Baptist church I serve, gathered with our sisters and brothers of Saint Peter Episcopal Church for Ash Wednesday.  The beginning of the Season of Lent.

Ash Wednesday is not normally part of the Baptist tradition and it is beautiful to see distinct branches of the Christian tree come together for a common purpose. For this ‘liturgically challenged’ Baptist, my spiritual imagination has been enriched and expanded by the addition of Ash Wednesday.

In my previous setting in Oregon, we shared this ritual with a Roman Catholic congregation.  For the Latino/Latina members of that congregation, it was the largest service of the year.  It was beautiful to worship in Spanish and English.

Here in New England, we gather with an Episcopal Church.  The crowd and diversity may not be the same, but the meaning we find in the company of one another is a constant.

For this ritual, ashes are placed on the forehead in the shape of the cross.  The ashes are presented with these words, “Repent and believe in the Good News”.  It is a truly intimate act to look someone in the eyes, offering ancient words of repentance, as you smudge their forehead with ashes.  You can’t avert your eyes, you can’t deny your vulnerability.

In our highly individualistic culture, Ash Wednesday is profoundly counter cultural.  This ritual reminds us that we come from dust and to dust we will return.  The placing of the ashes on the forehead is an ‘in  your face’ reminder that the illusion of our immortality, and hyper individualism,  is just that, an illusion.

There is something strangely reassuring, in acknowledging one’s mortality.  Rather than being a morbid ritual, Ash Wednesday is a reminder to savor the gift of life, to take care of each other.  A reminder that one day, each of us returns to the Source of all that is good, lasting and true.

Ashes to ashes.  Dust to dust.

Moving Out

Elizabeth O’Connor was a co-founder of Church of the Savior, a radical church formed in the 1950’s in Washington D.C. She along with Gordon Cosby put into practice the core words of Jesus in Matthew 25: 40 “Whatever you do unto the most vulnerable of my sisters and brothers you do unto me.”

Never focused on brick and mortar this church opened free medical clinics, summer camps for inner city kids, workshops on leadership development, a hospice for street people, micro loans, and the list goes on and on. Always their work was rooted in the radical teachings of Jesus to love and include those of us on the margins. For this church, works of compassion and advocacy became a mystical place for meeting the risen Christ.

Evelyn O’Connor wrote: “When the church starts to be the church, it will constantly be adventuring out into places where there are no tried and tested ways. If the church in our day has few prophetic voices to sound above the noises of the street, perhaps in large part it is because the pioneering spirit has become foreign to it. It shows little willingness to explore new ways. Where it does it has often been called an experiment. We would say that the church of Christ is never an experiment, but wherever that church is true to its mission it will be experimenting, pioneering, blazing new paths, seeking how to speak the reconciling Word of God to its own age.”

It’s been said that we live in a post-Christian era. In part this refers to our increasingly diverse culture that finds meaning in many places both religious and secular. The church is just one of many voices competing to be heard. In many ways this is good. It is easy to become complacent even arrogant when you are in the majority.

In many ways for the Christian movement the twenty-first century is similar to that of the first century. First century Christ followers like Paul, Peter, Lydia and Silas realized that they were but a minority voice and fueled by their passion went out into the public realm to share their story.

Two thousand years later we are once again a minority voice. The question is will we stay hidden away in isolated enclaves? Or will we like the early church, (and like Church of the Savior) be willing to let go of what is comfortable and familiar and become a part of the wider community where we can serve, learn from and share with a wonderful mix of perspectives and traditions.

photo of church aisle with open doors

It takes courage to leave the familiarity of what is. It means having clarity that you have something of importance to share. But it also requires a spirit of humility, that those with a different belief have something of value to offer as well.

In the fourth century, a bishop in the fledgling way of Jesus, Augustine of Hippo in North Africa said this:

“Do not think you must speak the truth to a Christian but can lie to a ‘pagan’. You are speaking to your brother or sister, born like you from Adam and Eve: realize all the people you meet are your neighbors even before they are Christians; you have no idea how God sees them. The ones you mock for worshiping stones … may worship God more fervently than you who laughed at them…. You cannot see into the future, so let every one be your neighbor.”

For those of us who love what the church can be and love the way of Jesus, this is a challenging and exciting time. The days of waiting for people to come to us are over. Are we ready to leave the safety of our buildings? Are we clear on what we have to offer? And, are we open to the blessings, the wisdom that other traditions and voices have to offer to us?

To say ‘yes’ is to be open to being changed. To say ‘yes’, is to know that we don’t journey alone. It was true in the first century and it is true today.

Praying for Francis

Pope FrancisWith white smoke rising over the Vatican 1.2 billion Roman Catholics welcomed  Cardinal Bergoglio from Buenos Aires, Argentina as their new Pope.   

A theological conservative, Cardinal Bergoglio is also known for his compassion — a combination reminiscent of Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador or Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker Movement. In Buenos Aires, the cardinal showed real compassion for HIV victims, and he sternly rebuked priests who refused to baptize children born out-of-wedlock.  There are also reports of the new pope being a “bridge builder” between Jesuits and other orders and, more widely, between conservatives and liberals in the church. How welcome that would be.

As the first Pope from South American, I am impressed by his sensitivity towards the poor and the world’s massive inequality — from the perspective of one of the world’s poorest places.

“We live in the most unequal part of the world, which has grown the most yet reduced misery the least,” said Bergoglio at a 2007 Latin American bishops meeting, according to National Catholic Reporter. “The unjust distribution of goods persists, creating a situation of social sin that cries out to Heaven and limits the possibilities of a fuller life for so many of our brothers.”

Reflecting this sensitivity the new Pope has chosen the name Francis.  His namesake, Saint Francis of Assisi refused the trappings of power and possessions and chose to enter into deep solidarity with the poor, forgotten, oppressed.  In his famous prayer he asked that he become ‘an instrument of peace’.

When he spoke to the welcoming crowd, the first act of Pope Francis was to ask for their prayers.   As a Christian from the Baptist tradition I add my prayers to those of my Roman Catholic sisters and brothers.   I pray that this Pope will be a moral leader not only for the Roman Catholic community but for Christians from all traditions.  Indeed, may this Pope use his calling to build bridges of understanding and common cause among all the faiths of the world, particularly for the sake of those whom Jesus called ‘the least of these my brothers and sisters’ (Matthew 25: 31 – 46) 

There are many expectations placed upon Pope Francis.  With God’s help and the prayers of the world family we can only be hopeful.  In choosing the name of Francis, the Prince of the Poor, he is off to a good start.  “May God bless Pope Francis.  Amen.”

Ashes to Ashes

imagesCA2SY3HSTonight the Baptist church I serve, will gather with our sisters and brothers of Saint Peter Episcopal Church for Ash Wednesday.

Ash Wednesday is not normally part of the Baptist tradition and it is beautiful to see these  distinct branches of the Christian tree come together for a common purpose. For this ‘liturgically challenged’ Baptist, my spiritual imagination has been enriched and expanded by the addition of Ash Wednesday.   In my previous setting, we shared this ritual with a  Roman Catholic congregation and now with an Episcopal church.

For this ritual, ashes are placed on the forehead in the shape of the cross.  The ashes are presented with these words, “Repent and believe in the Good News”.  It is a truly intimate act to look someone in the eyes, offering ancient words of repentance, as you smudge their forehead with ashes.  You can’t avert your eyes, you can’t deny your vulnerability.

In our highly individualistic, youth oriented culture, Ash Wednesday is profoundly counter cultural.  This ritual reminds us that we come from dust and to dust we will return.  The placing of the ashes on the forehead is a ‘in  your face’ reminder that the illusion of our immortality is just that, an illusion.

There is something strangely reassuring in acknowledging ones mortality.  Something even joyful.  Rather than being a morbid ritual, Ash Wednesday reminds us to savor the gift of life, to remember that it is fleeting  and that one day each of us will return to our Creator, the source of all that is good, lasting and true.

Ashes to ashes.  Dust to dust.